It's been six years since Joss Whedon made his now infamous Equality Now speech, wherein he once and for all answered the question that he gets asked the most in interviews: So, why does he write these strong women characters anyway? In his typically self-deprecating nerd-halter, Joss (we're on a first name basis) gives several humorous and serious answers in turn, but it's his final answer that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it: "Because you're still asking me that question."
Many people rightly believe that TV is actually a great place for women to be right now (at least, in comparison to the rom-com, sex-thriller infested film industry). In the past fifteen years, TV has given us Laura Roslin, Temperance Brennan, Joan Holloway, Peggy Olson, Dana Scully, Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope, Lorelai Gilmore, Sydney Bristow, and Veronica Mars, just to name a few. But those same people, me included, also believe it could be even better. This summer at San Diego Comic Con, in one of the Con's most well-publicized panels, someone asked Joss Whedon, "Why do you consistently include strong female characters?" He answered very diplomatically, but my brain exploded. Six years later, this is still a question people are asking, because six years later, strong, three-dimensional female characters are still the exception rather than the rule. (And female writers even more of an exception.)
So how do the ladies from this fall's new shows stack up? Let's go in order (on a scale of ★ to ★★★★★):
Admittedly, Terra Nova has more pressing problems to worry about than whether or not its female characters are strong ones: it should first and foremost be worrying about developing ANY character beyond more than the scant two-dimensions we've been given so far. We're five episodes in, and I have yet to feel more than a glimmer of affection for any character except Taylor (Stephen Lang), and it's the males that get most of the screen-time. The few scenes we're given with female characters are largely spent examining how those women live their lives in relation to the men on the show, i.e. the love triangle between jealous husband Jim (Jason O'Mara), his wife Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), and her ex-boyfriend Malcolm (Rod Hallett), or the use of the fantastic Allison Miller as nothing more than teenage eye-candy for Jim and Elisabeth's angsty teenage son, Josh (Landon Liboiron). I'm not saying the show is being deliberately sexist here; what I'm saying is that the characters on this show are so thinly drawn that they come off as sexist, despite intentions.
I'm not a huge fan of Michael Patrick King, but I do enjoy Whitney Cummings quite a bit, so I guess it makes sense that I thoroughly enjoy about 50% of the show they created together. Alyssa Rosenberg actually wrote a great article about 2 Broke Girls a couple of days ago that sums up pretty much how I feel about the show's treatment of race and class issues (race: bad, class: good), but she doesn't really delve into it's treatment of gender issues. For the record, I'm going with "good." Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs) are independent, intelligent women (or in the process of becoming such), and so far, the show has managed to consistently craft stories for them concerning what I would call "real-woman" issues, or rather, "real-person issues." Meaning, like Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation (although those two wish they could be half as awesome as Leslie Knope), Caroline and Max are written as people rather than being defined exclusively by their status as women. (The show, however, does not extend the same courtesy to the men, who are defined either by their status as males, and thus are portrayed as either sexist or as asexual nerds, or by their race, which also makes them sexist, or asexual nerds.) And I happen to think that's pretty cool, even if the show does make me want to shove my head under my couch about half the time.
I've never been a huge Josh Schwartz fan. I usually make it through season two of his shows and then lose interest. It happened with The OC, it happened with Gossip Girl, and I can easily imagine it happening with Hart of Dixie (but not Chuck . . . never Chuck . . . I love you, Chuck). Putting aside the ridiculousness of the premise, which honestly you should just expect and embrace from The CW at this point, there isn't really anything offensive about Rachel Bilson's character, Zoe. Sure, part of the reason she moves to Alabama is because her boyfriend dumps her, but honestly? That is a real thing happens to real women. If it was the ONLY reason behind her crazy, I'd be a little worried, but she's also dealing with this little thing called her career. So all in all it balances out.
You either love Zooey Deschanel, or you can't stand her. I don't think there's any in between here. I happen to love her, but love or hate, you gotta admit her character on New Girl is kind of great in terms of lady stuff. Jess is this crazy mixture of gendered characteristics that I find refreshing, and frankly, that I identify with. Yes, women cry at Dirty Dancing and become depressed when their asshole boyfriends cheat on them. But some of us also do gross things sometimes like farting and burping, and we do crazy dances and Gollum impressions and other "quirky" things like that. One of my favorite things about the show is the growing friendship between Jess and new roommate Nick (Jake Johnson). Nick is given character traits that are usually coded as feminine (read: emotional), and in the last episode, "Wedding," it's Jess that has to talk him down. As weird and over the top she is at times, I find that balance absolutely fascinating.
Oh, Ringer, where do I start? Tonally, the show is still a little bit all over the place, but over the course of its first 22-episode season, I can see it gradually settling down into this weird hybrid of nighttime soap and crime thriller. And what motivates characters in both of those genres more of then than not? Sex. Money. Revenge. Ringer's characters are playing it so close to the vest at this point that it's hard to tell what's going on under the surface, so it's equally as hard to judge some of its female characters. (Of course, this is also something we could blame on the writing . . . perhaps Siobhan, Bridget, Andrew, etc, aren't meant to be quite so opaque . . . maybe they just need better dialogue to work with.) The only one I feel comfortable in judging is Bridget (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and I think that's only because we've spent so much time with her. She's our lens. Bridget's main motivation is redemption, both for her own past actions, and for the actions of her sister, whom she believes dead. Bridget is self-motivated, self-actualized, and self-aware enough to face her problems (her many, many problems). She may not be the kind of person you'd want to be friends with, but she's got spunk. Another thing in Ringer's corner: it ain't just the women obsessing over sex and revenge, it's the men, too.
Up All Night and Suburgatory have more in common than would first appear. Both feature central female characters who are used to certain lifestyles, only to have those lifestyles upended by something (new baby, new neighborhood). Suburgatory's Tessa is independent and strong-willed, and resents being forced to live in the suburbs, which she initially views as just a cleverly disguised version of Hell (hence the title). Up All Night has Reagan, a woman whose late-in-life pregnancy forces her to disrupt her extremely successful career, and her husband Chris, who becomes a stay at home dad to help her keep both the job and the baby. Both shows use the struggles of their heroines in order to attempt to point out the modern day foibles of trying to balance modern, progressive values with a more traditional lifestyle (both shows also lean heavily towards the progressive side). And both shows have a central male/female relationship that brings the whole thing together. Up All Night manages to achieve a more cohesive whole. Your mileage will vary on Suburgatory, depending on what kind of things make you laugh and how charming you find Tessa to be, but Up All Night largely succeeds in what it's attempting. Reagan and Chris are believable in their struggles, and more importantly, hilarious while doing so.
Grade: ★★★ (Suburgatory), ★★★★ (Up All Night)
I've been meaning to catch up on Revenge ever since I caught the delightfully guilty-pleasure pilot, but despite only hearing good things, I haven't been able to find the time. Based on the pilot and those aforementioned good things, I'd say Revenge is actually in position to be one of the strongest new shows of Fall 2011, especially when you take Emily Thorne into account. I gave up on the broody Everwood after a couple of seasons, and Brothers and Sisters always sounded like my own particular brand of torture, but I have a feeling that neither show ever used Emily Van Camp to her full potential in the way that Revenge could. Disenfranchised by scheming, rich backbiters as a child, Emily Thorne (aka Amanda Clarke) receives a large inheritance from the father whose life was ruined, and suddenly she has all this power . . . but what will she do with it? (Revenge, duh.) The most fun part about this series is watching Emily/Amanda wield all of her secret power for evil. We as viewers get a kind of sick pleasure out of her willful misuse of her power; we're under no illusions that what she's doing is right, but it's satisfying nonetheless.
I'm going to straight up admit to you that I couldn't make it past the first five minutes of American Horror Story, and frankly, I think that was a wise decision on my part. It sounds absolutely terrifying, and not in a good way. I've also only caught bits and pieces of Homeland here and there, so I'm just going to turn it over to Alyssa Rosenberg again, whose opinion I trust very much. That opinion? American Horror Story? Gratuitous. Homeland? Tasteful and subtle. (Note: Homeland airs on Sundays, but as I don't plan on officially grading either of these shows, I wanted to include them together.)
As I stated above, I'm a fan of Whitney Cummings, so of course I'm going to be a fan of Whitney. I very much wish certain things about the show were different, most of which pertain to the classic multi-camera thing it's got going on. All of Whitney and Alex's stereotypes sidekicks friends come off as predictable, one-dimensional, and not funny. The laugh-track makes me cringe. But there's something about the relationship between Whitney and Alex (Chris D'Elia), and Alex and Whitney themselves, that I find very charming. Yeah, it's yet another take on dating and the modern relationship, but at least it's a take whose main characters are fully realized and, this is a big one, likable. (You might disagree with me on that last one, but I'm the one writing this article, so suck it and stuff.)
Prime Suspect is probably the most typically feminist outing on this list, and not necessarily in a good way. For all the awesome ass-kicking scenes of Jane Timoney (Maria Bello) laying waste and taking names, you've also got an over-the-top sausage-fest of New York cops whose only reason for hating Timoney seems to be that she's got a uterus. As the show goes on along, I hope they tone down the anti-male sentiment they've got going on. Feminism as I understand it isn't about women hating men, and it's this sort of portrayal that gives it that bad rep in the first place. It will be interesting to see how they play with Jane's character. As it is now, it's interesting to me to watch how her traditionally male-coded characteristics make the other cops uncomfortable, and how her lack of female coded characteristics (her masculine way of dressing, her lack of overt empathy or any interest in flirting) unsettle them. I just wish the show could find a way to round out the male characters in the same way so that they seem less like villains and more like people.
The Secret Circle is my guilty pleasure. It's not a particularly great show, although the pilot was strong, but it's light and fun and hits the spot. In terms of this list, though, I'm afraid the girls just don't cut it. It's a soap, a teen genre soap at that, and if it's not careful to deepen its character development rather quickly, Cassie, Faye, Diana, and Melissa are going to fall into a pit of pitifulness they might not be able to get out of, even with magic powers. Cassie (Britt Robertson) spends all her time running around in short skirts and boots, and when she's not doing that, she's making googly eyes at forbidden Adam (Thomas Dekker), who is dating Diana (Shelley Hennig), whose only function in turn seems to be as an obstacle to Adam and Cassie's inevitable true and forever love. All of this is part of the reason we watch the show: we want to see these situations play out in exactly the ways that we expect, but we also want characters we can identify with, and at a certain point if all a character's got is a dead mother and a forbidden love . . . I'm going to need more. Poor Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy) has it the worst, though. She's spent the entire run of the show so far obsessed with a guy who treated her like crap, and then he died. That is literally everything I know about her. Come on, Kev. You can do better than that. I know you can.
Grimm hasn't premiered yet (that will happen October 28th), but I've been perusing IMDB and Wikipedia and such, and I'll be damned if I can find any women characters of significance. The only one I've got is one who is described as "the girlfriend" (Bitsie Tulloch), whom our main character will be keeping secrets from. As part of the plot. Of course, I haven't seen it yet so grain of salt and all that, but I would be lying if I said this didn't make me a little worried. Come on, show. I want to be on your side, I really do. But you've gotta meet me half-way.
Pan Am is probably my favorite new show of the season. It's fun and entertaining without being stupid, and all of its lovely ladies err on the good side of that fine line between playing a strong character in a sexist world, and playing a sexist character enforcing a sexist world. Pan Am combines all the pleasures of a show like Mad Men, which is steeped in cultural criticisms of power, gender, and class (though not nearly to the same degree), with the blue-skies optimistic attitude of all the shows that mark ABC's brand. Perhaps the quote that best sums it up is one from the pilot: "See that table over there? That is natural selection at work, my friend. They don't know that they're a new breed of woman. They just had a natural impulse. To take flight." As an old professor of mine once wrote, they're women on the verge.
Once Upon a Time premieres this Sunday, October 23rd, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm really frickin' excited about it. Not only is it helmed by two people I happen to admire, but it features fairy-tales, which is my Kryptonite, and with those fairy-tales being the basis of the story, it has a unique opportunity to overthrow the traditional damsel-in-distress quality of the princesses and such that normally populate these kinds of stories, in much the same way that Enchanted did in parodying Disney movies a couple years back. Plus it has Jennifer Morrison in it, and she is really good at being awesome. So I'm just going to go ahead and give it five stars. BECAUSE I CAN.
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So, what about you guys? This is a loaded topic, and I wish to hear of your thoughts. Please to elaborate them in the comments. Also, you should go watch Star Trek. Just because.